As my grandpa always used to say, it never hurts to learn something more than once. Today we wanted to bring you a short review on the initial differences between oak barrels and steel barrels when it comes to aging wine. If you already know everything, then this will be a fun way for you to feel smart. But if you’re learning for the first time, then enjoy!
The first and perhaps most important note to make, is that one stainless steel barrel can be used to age wine far more than an oak barrel. While an oak barrel may only be used for around three to four vintages, a stainless steel barrel can be used indefinitely if maintained properly. In addition, steel aging is a faster process. These two together make steel a very cost effective alternative. Many winemakers choose to use both stainless steel and oak in order to have a steady stream of ‘finished’ wine ready to go to market. For example, while a dark or perhaps more premium vintage is aging in an oak barrel, a winemaker can rotate a few different batches through their available stainless steel wine barrels.
As far as flavors go, one does not necessarily have a hand up on the other. The flavor profiles made available by using steel vs. oak are very different, and one is not necessarily objectively better than the other. Oak barrels are used for darker, more earthy wines, and impart a significant amount of oaky flavor. They may also grant flavors such as chocolate, vanilla, or caramel depending on the barrel. Steel is used for primarily white wines, specifically wines with a much fruitier profile. Steel does not transfer any flavor to the wine, and provides a good environment for aging efficiently.
Oak has a certain amount of pedigree to it, as it is how humans have been aging wine for hundreds and hundreds of years. But even though stainless steel wine aging is a relatively new process, it definitely has dug out a solid place in the market.